I recently spent 22 hours on a bus travelling from the south to the north of Burma in the company of a veteran missionary from Ballymena, Billy Campbell. Even though well into his 70s, Billy remains energetic and enthusiastic about his work, and on that long journey our conversation never flagged.
Sometime in the middle of the night, as we negotiated the treacherous roads around Mandalay, Billy began to tell me about his early days around Ballymena and Tullygarley. He recounted his conversion to Christ during a relay broadcast of Billy Graham’s Harringay crusade in 1954, and his subsequent call to Christian work. Firstly with the Faith Mission, and then with OMS, Billy has now clocked up over 50 years of active Christian service.
During that sultry Asian night as the other Burmese passengers on the bus slept and dozed, our conversation turned to many of the mission halls in the Ballymena area, Slatt, Ballee, Ballynafie, the Craigs and Laymore, and the personalities associated with them. In body, I was somewhere in central Burma, but in mind and spirit I was transported to more familiar locations in mid-Antrim.
While most of his ministry has been based in Hong Kong, Billy and his Welsh-born wife, Jean, are now resident in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. From there, they continue to facilitate, support and train young church leaders in Cambodia and Burma. What has been achieved through Billy and Jean’s work has been amazing.
In a remote rural location in Cambodia where the Khymer Rouge once carried on their cruel campaign, Billy and his Cambodian partners have now built a school with over 220 children enrolled. Alongside the school, they have erected substantial buildings to house a skills training facility for young people as well as a health clinic. Many villagers in the surrounding area, and especially the children and young people, are now benefitting from the services and facilities provided by Hope House Education Centre.
In Yangon (more familiar to many as Rangoon), Billy has close links with two small Bible colleges which train young people for evangelism and mission in Burma. These dedicated and committed young people are being trained for active involvement in the task of Christian mission in the land first evangelized by the great Baptist missionary-scholar, Adoniram Judson. Many Burmese people have great hopes that the next election will bring the Nobel Laureate, An San Suu Kyi, to a position of power in Burma, and these young people are ready to make a positive contribution to the life of their nation.
The trip which Billy and I made to Kalaymyo in northern Burma was to establish links with the theological college of the Presbyterian Church of Mynamar which is located in that city, and to see what further help and support Irish Presbyterians and others might be able to offer. It was an inspiring visit, as we saw the efforts which are being made to support and extend the church in the Chin Hills of northern Burma. I could not have undertaken the visit without the support and counsel of my colleague from Tullygarley.
As I travelled back, I couldn’t help but think that the vibrant Christianity nurtured in the churches and mission halls of the Ballymena area has a vision and ministry that stretches far beyond their neighbourhoods and townlands. That global vision is well-represented and energetically sustained by the lives and commitments of men like Billy Campbell.